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Puraka, Kumbhaka, Rechaka + Shunyaka

Learning about the aspects of breathing in yoga and the parts of the breath cycle. Here, we explain puraka, rechaka, and kumbhaka and how to use them to prepare for pranayama.

woman doing pranayama

According to yoga philosophy, our consciousness is always engaged with our breath, albeit with passive attentiveness. The nature of this breath-consciousness relationship depends on our awareness, which can be improved by correct and controlled breathing exercises.

But before we study ancient wisdom, it's important to know the term we will encounter.

In yoga, Puraka Rechaka Kumbhaka are Sanskrit words to describe the three different parts of one breathing cycle. Puraka means inhalation, rechaka means exhalation, and kumbhaka refers to pausing after inhalation or exhalation (breath retention).

You cannot attempt pranayama without full control over every aspect of the puraka-kumbhaka-recaka cycle. In fact, you should be able to control breathing during asana or poses because you need to use your breath measure the duration of poses and ground yourself.

In the post, we cover puraka-rechaka-kumbhaka in detail and discuss ways to use them.

The Parts of the Breath Cycle in Yoga

In yoga, the breath (shvasam - shva-SAHM) is a process that occurs in four steps or stages. When you start learning or practicing pranyama, you will bump into some Sanskrit terms such as Puraka Rechaka Kumbhaka and Shunyaka.

They refer to four aspects of the breath and can be understood as:

  1. Puraka - Inhalation or the in-breath.

  2. Kumbhaka - Breath retention after inhalation (lungs full)

  3. Rechaka = Exhalation or the out-breath.

  4. Shunyaka = Suspension or breath retention after exhaling (lungs empty).

Thereof, one breath cycle is the process of puraka-kumbhaka-rechaka-shunyaka, the most prelimininary form of yoga breathing one can learn to cleanse the body.

1. Puraka - Inhalation or the In-breath

Puraka is the Sanskrit term for inhalation or the in-breath. It fills the lungs, moves the diaphragm down, brings prana inside the body, and generates energy. In Light on Pranayama, B. K. S. Iyengar calls Puraka the "pure cosmic energy" that feeds and stimulates our system.

According to yogic literature, puraka, when done flawlessless, is gentle, noiseless, and effortless.

Puraka doesn't get a lot of attention in the yogic texts because inhalation is a natural and mandatory process. Instead, the bulk of pranayama exercises focus on Kumbhaka and Rechaka - breath retention and exhalation, which we will discuss in the next sections.

How to use Puraka breathing in yoga?

Mastering the in-breath is the first step to pranayama. We inhale involuntarily even though we should be fully aware of it. So, the most basic change we can make is to observe the in-breath and correct it, while also making it a conscious and voluntary process.

To do this, get into Easy Pose with a yoga bolster to elevate the hips or lie down in Corpse Pose with the bolster under the knees or head. Start with 5 to 10 minutes of breath observation, paying attention only to inhalation or the puraka aspect of breathing - without trying to control or alter it. Keep the the shoulders, tongue, and throat completely relaxed.

Keep your awareness on the in-breath as much as possible. Ensure there is no exaggerated breathing and/or stomach breathing. It hinders the lungs from expanding optimally and puts undue strain on the brain and cardiovascular system.

Focus on inhaling correctly and feel prana-energy enter the body and nourish you each time you inhale. Continue this until puraka is slow, controlled, and fills/expands the lungs completely, it should become second nature.

2. Rechaka - Exhalation or the Out-breath

In yogic texts, the Sanskrit term for exhalation is rechaka. It refers to the exhaled breath that has no beneficial qualities or interaction with the body. It is air devoid (or depleted) of prana, which carries the impurities of the body, thus cleansing us.

The exhaled breath should be odorless, steady, and smooth. A person should feel warm and moist as the breath leaves the body.

In pranayama, exhalation is the second most important aspect of breathing (after retention). The classical texts state that we surrender the Ego in exhalation - the Individual Self momentarily dissolves into the Universal Self.

Rechaka based pranayama or breathing can calm the nervous system. Typically, exhalation should be twice the length of the inhalation. This 1:2 ratio of inhalation-exhalation needs time and patience to develop. It should be done systematically and gradually.

Once achieved, it improves the elasticity of the lungs and negates the ego. The dissolution of the ego draws us away from material desires and allows us to journey inward. This 'turning inward' is called pratyahara - the fifth step of Ashtanga (the eight steps) in Yoga.

Rechaka Pranayama to prepare for yoga breathing

Mastering the out-breath is the second step. The best way to exhale is when rechake is slow, prolonged, and it empties the lungs completely. You can get into Easy Pose or lie down in Corpse Pose with the bolster under the head, wrapped in a cozy yoga blanket.

Start with 10 minutes breath observation, paying attention only to exhalation or the rechaka aspect of breathing. Ensure there are no jerks or pauses during exhalation. Unsteady or jerky exhalation causes discomfort to the brain and nervous system.

Focus on exhaling correctly and let go of all thoughts and emotions with each out-breath. The second exercise should be slow inhalation with a long exhalation following a 1:2 ratio. For instance, if the puraka is four seconds, rechake should be eight seconds. Start slow with a low count and gradually work your way up to 8 to 10 seconds of exhalation.

3. Kumbhaka or Retention

Kumbhaka means breath retention in yoga. In Sanskrit, kumbha means a pot. As you can imagine, a pot can either be empty or full. Thus, kumbhaka can refer to retention after inhalation (a full pot) or suspension after exhalation (an empty pot).

Pranayama is structured around the permutation and combinations of these two pauses. Inhalation and exhalation are merely levers to manipulate breath retention to achieve different results. You may encouter additional terms like antara and bahya kumbhaka. Let's look at both terms in detail.

1. Antara kumbhaka:

The Sanskrit word Antara means within. Thereby, Antara kumbhaka refers to the retention of the inhaled breath within the body. To be precise, it refers to retaining the full breath (inside the lungs) – after natural inhalation, without any force. During antara kumbhaka, we invite prana (the life-energy) to reside within us. The yogic texts say that this is when the Individual unites with the Universal Self by merging into it.

2. Bahya or Bahir Kumbhaka:

Bahya Kumbhaka refers to “holding” the breath outside the lungs after exhalation. It is the pause between exhalation and inhalation. It is also called Shunyaka to avoid confusion. In English, we use breath retention for antara kumbhaka and breath suspension for bahya kumbhaka.

Shunya, meaning void or nothingness, represents the momentary void when the invidual surrenders the 'Self' to the Universe. The five sense organs become still during bahya kumbhaka. when the breath is held outside the body.

The state of 'yoga' is achieved when the mind if ree from distractions. Inhalation and exhalation create thoughts and distractions, which become barriers to stillness. Yogic literature says we can eliminate this barriers by pausing after the in-breath or out-breath.

In the Yoga Sutras, sage Patanjali says pranayama is the pause between two breaths or the retention of breath between inhalation and exhalation. In another verse, he goes on to say "pranayama is breath retention (kumbhaka)." It refers to both antara and bahya kumbhaka.

Puraka-kumbhaka-rechaka Ratio

Most yoga texts suggest a 1:4:2 matra (count) as the best puraka-kumbhaka-rechaka ratio. Simply put, puraka should be natural, kumbhaka should for four times the duration of inhalation, and rechaka should be two times the duration of puraka (1:4:2).

The point of yoga breathing is to push your breathing capacity just a little each day to increase your natural capacity. As with resistance training, we breach the limits and allow the body to rest and recover. This is done in small doses to avoid side effects or harm.

That way, you can go from 2 seconds of breath retention to 5 seconds within a few weeks. Over time, you attain mastery over the puraka-rechaka-kumbhaka cycle. Practice breathing exercises focusing of puraka, rechaka, and kumbhaka in different combinations to achieve this ratio.

Note that every individual has a different capacity. Any sign of tension, anxiety or stiffening of muscles indicates you are exceeding your limitations. Forcing the breath beyond its capacity may result in the tensing of the muscles, anxiety and a spike in blood pressure.

What is a matra in yoga and pranayama?

We meaure breathing during pranayama using a count called 'matra'. Some yoga texts say a matra is the amount of time it takes to circle your hand around your knee and snap your fingers. However, for the sake of simplicity, it is understood that one matra equates to one second.

Parting Thoughts

In yoga, we use the breath to direct, control, and regulate the mind. The two are deeply connected. The breath acts as a steering wheel that drives you to the different levels of consciousness-awareness. With this post, we hope you are acquainted with the parts of breathing so that you will be able to better understand pranayama instructions as you proceed.

All yoga breathing exercises focusing of puraka, rechaka, and kumbhaka in different combinations. Once you are done with exercises in this post, you can try Pratiloma Pranayama or prologed exhalation.

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